How Ofsted Undermines the Education System

Ofsted has spent its thirty years inflicting surveillance and stress on teachers and judging working-class schools more harshly than their wealthy counterparts – it must be replaced.

Ofsted has been widely criticised for the stress it produces in education workers. (Sydney Bourne / Getty Images)

Friday 6 May 2022 marks the anniversary of the founding of the Office for Standards in Education. The single most hated and feared quango in the country, it could be argued, is turning thirty.

Do a quick search online, and you’ll see story after story about the noxious effect of the toxic inspectorate: ‘Ofsted ‘causes breakdowns in teachers’’; ‘Heads are quitting over ‘brutal’ Ofsted inspections’; ‘Driven to despair by Ofsted inspections’; ‘Ofsted’s lack of humanity’—and that’s only page one of the search results. As educators for years and parents ourselves, we’ve seen the effects of Ofsted on friends, colleagues, and family first hand.

Robert recalls:

My first experiences with Ofsted didn’t start as a teacher, nor did it start when I was a pupil. In fact, I don’t remember them ever being mentioned during my time at school. Instead, my first experiences were at home.

My mother, now retired, was a childminder, and was for the whole time I lived at home. Often this was something that drove me mad: my house was always full and noisy, and the other children wanted to play with my toys. It was, though, always a happy place. The children under my mum’s care loved her, she is still in contact with some of them now, despite them being grown and having children of their own. They loved her because my mum’s view was that while their parents were at work, she was their mother.

I asked my Mum what it was about Ofsted she didn’t like. ‘It was mainly because they wanted us to become the same as nurseries,’ she explained. ‘They didn’t like us just treating them as we would treat our own children; they wanted it to be more regimental, going through our toy boxes and telling us we had to put up posters on our walls, and not recognising that that was our home—and that that was why parents chose us.’

Ofsted is at its heart a punitive system. Prior to Ofsted, childminders came under the aegis of Social Services, who my mum describes as ‘very approachable—you could phone them for advice’. Can you imagine a headteacher phoning Ofsted for advice? The constant threat of getting ‘the call’ always hangs over educators, causing stress and anxiety, one of the reasons my mum ultimately took early retirement: ‘Yes, stress was a big part of a lot of people [quitting], and then the grading, which was very upsetting when you had been doing a good job for years with no complaints from the mums and dads.’

Not Fit for Purpose

When Ofsted was founded in 1992, the first Chief Inspector, Professor Sutherland, stated that its aim was ‘to make a contribution… to raising standards and improving the quality of educational experience and provision’. In 2017, however, the National Audit Office concluded that Ofsted ‘does not know whether its school inspections are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children’s and young people’s lives.’

‘There is no evidence of Ofsted contributing to positive effects on teaching and learning,’ Alex Snowdon, vice chair of the NEU Northern Regional Council, says. ‘Ofsted is ideologically driven and serves to narrow education. It creates unnecessary stress and excessive workload for school staff, while doing nothing to support the wellbeing and learning of children.’

His words are echoed by Merike Williams, Chair of the NEU Northern Regional Council. ‘Ofsted created so much unnecessary anxiety and work. It drives teachers away from the profession, creating a deficit where we should have decades of experience and expertise. Instead of nurturing and inspiring our pupils, we are forced to work within a toxic environment… Teachers are leaving the profession in droves.’

Ofsted’s effects are not equally distributed. The NEU points out that ‘Comprehensive, independent analysis of Ofsted judgements show they discriminate against schools in deprived areas—awarding ‘outstanding’ grades to four times more secondary schools with better off pupils than schools with students who are worse off.’ Recent academic research by Ian Cushing and Julia Snell has shown that Ofsted inspectors routinely adopt deficit perspectives in their reports on schools with large working class and/or racialised communities. The researchers argue that ultimately Ofsted’s surveillance and policing of language in schools represents an ‘intersectional classed and racialised practice which stigmatises bodies whose speech is heard to deviate from standardised English.’

Academic Damien Page has argued that a core role of Ofsted is its ‘surveillance’ function, increasing fear among education workers and, in turn, creating an ever-expanding range of administrative and data-logging tasks designed to ensure that the relevant paper trails exist for when the inspectorate comes to call. Among the most pernicious effects of this aspect of Ofsted’s work is the way in which it has wormed its way into the consciousness of education workers. Increasingly, we police ourselves and our colleagues.

As Mark Fisher put it in Capitalist Realism, drawing on his own experience as a Further Education lecturer, amid the ‘new bureaucracy’ brought in by institutions like Ofsted, ‘workers become their own auditors’ as ‘surveillance and monitoring are outsourced… to the college and ultimately to the lecturers themselves, and become a permanent feature of the college structure (and of the psychology of individual lecturers).’

Page and Fisher are not alone in these findings. In her research with primary and secondary schools in deprived coastal communities, Aly Coleman has found that the overbearing presence of Ofsted ‘produces an effect of constant visibility and pressure to perform for leaders and teachers’, and that this can have particularly pernicious impacts on school leaders, for whom the ‘disciplinary gaze from Ofsted invokes… feelings of anxiety and fear, amid relentless pressure to perform’. Under such pressure, some leaders make decisions that transfer this anxiety onto other staff. The anxiety and fear thus percolates down to other school workers, inhibiting their ability to perform their real job: delivering transformative education.

Time for Replacement

The National Education Union is the biggest education union in the country. It is their duty to represent their members and safeguard their wellbeing, so it is only right that they are calling for Ofsted to be replaced. The Union’s campaign will see ‘unhappy birthday’ cards sent to the inspectorate, as well as protests taking place outside their offices today. An NEU petition has gained tens of thousands of signatures, not just from teachers but from education workers across the board and parents, too, who see that if they want good teachers to stay in their children’s schools they need to look after the wellbeing of those teachers.

Within the Labour Party, however, there is less drive to replace and more to reform. This led to Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson being heckled and union reps walking out during her speech during the National Education Union’s first in-person conference since the pandemic. Phillipson has publicly stated that the Party would ‘reform Ofsted to support school improvement’, and that to ‘believe in inspection is not to believe it couldn’t be better’; unfortunately, however, it has reached the stage where the Ofsted ‘brand’ is so toxic that only its public dissolution will be enough.

As teachers and parents ourselves, we appreciate that we need a mechanism to ensure that schools are providing the best education possible for our children. We are not talking about abolition without replacement, which is why we support the idea of an independent commission to look at alternative models. There are many international examples to choose from, adapt, and improve upon.

Though comparative data on alternative approaches is hard to come by, it’s worth noting that the UK Department for Education’s own 2019 evidence review of ‘School improvement systems in high performing countries’ notes that in Germany, for instance, they ‘operate low-stakes systems, with inspection results not generally published’, and that internationally the most effective education systems ‘place a strong emphasis on school-to-school collaboration and peer-to-peer support’.

Whatever the replacement system is—and we favour local systems of collaboration—it should be one in which teachers are supported to be their best, one in which our professionalism is respected and valued, and one in which—most importantly—pupils are treated equally and not disadvantaged due to their class position.